The next month of the Oscar campaign — from today until January 13, when nomination balloting closes — is in some ways the most interesting phase of the process. There are no more tea leaves to read, no more wild cards, no more embargoes on the expression of opinion, no more “precursor” awards that could seriously reshape the race. As Hollywood shuts down for a vacation, thousands of Academy voters will watch the contenders — or, more importantly, decide which contenders they feel like watching. And the tectonic shifts that result can be so gradual that you won’t know anything has changed until you realize a couple of weeks from now that a particular movie has somehow lost momentum or pushed forward in the pack.
Every season inevitably becomes a narrative of narrowing. In September, it still feels possible for any movie or performance to stake a claim on pure merit. In December, that’s no longer true: Voters hate to waste their votes, so they tend to mass overwhelmingly behind candidates that the nexus of ads, campaigns, and other awards have told them are viable. Suddenly, trusting their own passions and instincts can seem futile.
The Case for Brad Pitt in Tree of Life
That’s particularly heartbreaking in the acting branch, where, at this time of year, I always want to tell the voters, “Forget everything you’ve heard so far and just vote for greatness wherever you find it.” As an example, I’ll cite the single best piece of screen acting I saw this year: Brad Pitt in The Tree of Life. So far, this performance has not figured in the Best Supporting Actor race at all. It should.
The man Pitt plays — a working father in 1950s Texas — is anything but ordinary to the son who alternately reveres, fears, and despises him, all for good reason. For some stars, playing “normal” is an excuse either to showboat or to condescend. Actors with Pitt’s magnetism often opt for ostentatious metamorphoses when they’re portraying just-plain-folks; they prioritize their own transformations in a way that invites you to admire the stretch rather than connect to the character. In Tree of Life, Pitt takes a much harder road. He changes the set of his mouth and brow into a mask of middle-aged anger and defense, shutting down his charisma in the service of exploring someone whose stern authority over his children only half-conceals his sense of narcissistic injury. This is a man who feels that he was robbed of his chance to be a success; he’s a thwarted monarch who’s livid that his only realm is the dinner table. It’s the best kind of transformative acting, because watching him, you don’t think “I’d never have guessed this was Brad Pitt.” You think, “I’d never have guessed Brad Pitt was this man.”
Given a role with such wrenching father-son dynamics, it must have been tremendously tempting to play only the red-meat stuff — the explosions, the clenched need for control, the abusiveness, the small tyrannies. Pitt does all that impeccably, but he never forgets that the inadequate father he’s playing is also a man who cares for his children, who teaches them things, who can’t bear not to be a good provider. Pitt doesn’t soft-pedal the character’s potential for cruelty, but he lives so deep inside the role that even when he’s behaving monstrously, he lets you see the self-loathing, the sense that he’s nursing a wound that will never heal. Nobody in the Supporting Actor category did more nuanced, layered, complicated work this year. But instead of being at the center of the discussion, his performance is on the fringes, because the system has decided that Pitt will be “taken care of” with a Best Actor nomination for Moneyball. He deserves that nomination. He deserves this one even more.
End of pitch. Now, back to the down-and-dirty.
Half a dozen questions that won’t be answered until 2012
1. Could War Horse be a game-changer? There’s room for a holiday-season hit to reconfigure the contest, and War Horse, which opens Christmas Day, is the sole viable candidate. (We Bought a Zoo may do well, but it’s too Marley & Me for the Kodak Theatre.) Holiday moviegoing choices are often negotiated compromises — what works for a 12-year-old, her older cousins, her father, and the grandparents? War Horse fits the bill. But with the verdict of critics dividing between “masterful” and “manipulative,” it’s not a slam-dunk in the race. To hold a slot, it has to open big and stay big.
2. Is Rooney Mara a factor? Two weeks ago, I groaned when Academy chief Tom Sherak insisted that voters should see movies in theaters, because this year, even the people distributing those movies don’t seem to care. That’s been made especially clear by the Best Actress race, in which it’s still not possible to buy a ticket for the performances of Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady, Tilda Swinton in We Need to Talk About Kevin, or Glenn Close in Albert Nobbs. By the end of its first week of release, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo will have been seen by more people than any Best Actress contender except The Help’s Viola Davis. In a contest dominated by big actresses in tiny films, a talented newcomer in a high-profile mainstream movie is well positioned to make some noise.
3. How does the way a movie plays on DVD affect the race? Not as much as everybody thinks. It used to be assumed that grand-scale pictorial spectacles would be hurt by at-home viewing, while intimate character-driven stories would get a lift. That hasn’t been the case. Visual films like War Horse and Hugo (even in 2-D) actually look fantastic on a reasonably large wide-screen set. And The Artist is black-and-white and shot in 4:3 — you could watch it on a 1989 Zenith, and if you scratch the screen up first, it’ll only look more authentic. Conversely, TV can make some smaller-scale movies look disappointingly like, you know, TV (TV that happens to star George Clooney, but still).
What can be hurt by DVD is a movie with a hushed or demanding sound mix. If there’s one contender this year I hope voters try to see in a theater, it’s Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. The film is quiet, almost whispered, and immersive — it depends for its effects on your close attention to the text and ominous subtext of what’s being said in a series of fraught, murmured conversations. It’s a tough movie (in the most gratifying and enjoyable way) that demands a big screen to let the dank rot of the production design and water-pipe echoes of the soundtrack seep into your system without distraction. So buy a ticket — or, for voters watching at home, turn down the lights, gun up the sound, and turn off the toys. Your iPad will still be there in two hours.
4. With many new releases, are older movies in danger of fading in the stretch? Yes and no. Ironically, it’s not the oldest movies whose campaigners have cause to worry. The Help sagged way back in the fall, and now looks all the tougher for having survived an onslaught of would-be competitors. But that movie was a big hit. The Descendants and Hugo aren’t — and the next three weeks are the worst possible moment for them to lose screens (which they will) and their places in the discussion (which they might). My guess is that while this may not seriously hurt either movie’s nomination chances, it could do some real damage between the nominations and the awards.
5. Can anything stop The Artist? Maybe. Right now, the film’s greatest obstacle may be that the public seems in no rush to see it; grosses for the current 17-theater run have been fine, but surprisingly short of the runaway-hit level that the gush of advance acclaim seemed to preordain. By Friday, according to boxofficemojo.com, the movie will be on 170 screens. What The Weinstein Company wants to avoid is expanding the movie so quickly that the lethal word “disappointment” could show up in any box-office headline. The Artist is clearly not going to turn into a popular success on the level of The King’s Speech, and it may not need to in order to take Best Picture — but it also can’t afford to hit the canvas in any audible way.
As The Film Experience’s Nathaniel Rogers argues, hysterical premature anointment of a front-runner (don’t blame me) followed by overemphatic resistance (er, define “overemphatic” … ) is one of the cruddiest aspects of any Oscar race, and right now, The Artist dwells in the eye of that storm. Since it remains largely unseen, people like me who think it’s being wildly overpraised should probably shut up for a bit and not attempt to restart the argument until after it gets 17 Academy Award nominations, the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, and the Nobel Peace Prize. It’s futile to fight any Oscar candidate that makes voters feel proud of what they see as their own great taste. This year, The Artist is that movie, and while I have problems with it, negative campaigning would, at this point, be cheap.
But just in case it works: Uggy the dog sexually harassed both his male and female co-stars. Happy holidays, everyone!
6. Does the fact that this wasn’t a great year for movies affect the race? I know the premise of this question is a fight-starter, but look at the films. To choose two recent points of comparison: 2011 is not 2009, which featured in its Best Picture contest a blockbuster that was also a groundbreaker (Avatar), an instant classic about war (The Hurt Locker), a high-water mark for Pixar (Up), a Sundance breakout that dwarfed any this year (Precious), a rare studio movie that tapped into the economic zeitgeist (Up in the Air), and a major Tarantino comeback (Inglourious Basterds). 2011 is also not 2007, a year in which There Will Be Blood, Michael Clayton, No Country for Old Men, Into the Wild, and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly seemed to herald a renaissance of American directing.
This year was, relatively speaking, a tentative and uncertain one for American movies. What this Oscar contest offers is a series of choices between the good-but-not-great and the great-but-flawed. The reason that matters is that masterpieces raise our standards and sharpen our thinking. A year in which three or four all-out great movies are at the center of the race raises the bar in every category because they remind us that there’s a difference between the merely good and the truly outstanding.
2011 is a year with a different complexion — one in which voters will have to decide what matters to them most. Those who go for the just-good-enough (“I liked it,” “it made me smile,” “I thought it was sweet,” “It was nice to escape for a couple of hours,” and so on) have plenty from which to choose. But there are other voters who prefer to champion filmmakers who take bold leaps even if the results are imperfect. Those voters constitute enough of a coalition to defy, usually once a year, the predictions of those who say that a movie is too dark, arty, or alienating to be recognized by the Academy. That’s one reason I think The Tree of Life is still in the hunt for a Best Picture nomination. But it’ll be interesting to see if that odd, loose voting bloc — which can include, at various times, New Yorkers, Brits, Europeans, writers and directors, younger members, and recent inductees — is powerful enough to unite around any other film or performance. What will they champion? Drive? A Separation? Shame? Take Shelter? Or will 2011 go down in Oscar history as a year in which “good enough” was as good as it got?
Mark Harris is the author of Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood and is currently at work on his next book. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkHarrisNYC.
Previously: Oscarmetrics: The Impact of the Golden Globe Nominations
Oscarmetrics: Critics’ Awards Upend the Best Picture Race
Oscarmetrics: Hugo, The Artist, and 2011’s Faux-Nostalgic Race for Best Picture